Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Romans 1:1-8 The Letter of Paul to the Romans
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.
Does anyone remember who wrote what we call the book of Romans? That’s right. Paul. Paul was not one of Jesus’ first 12 disciples or even one of Jesus’ first 100 followers, but he ended becoming one of the most important voices in the history of Christianity. We know about him from some of his own writings (letters that came to be known as books in our Bible) and from the book of Acts, which includes some his biography as gathered by that author.
There are also several letters-that-became-books that are credited to him that modern scholars think were actually written by someone who went to one of the churches Paul started. In his introduction to the New Testament, Bart Ehrman writes that six book that have been credited to Paul (Ephesians, Colossians, 2nd Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) have enough differences in writing style, vocabulary, and theology to be understood as either probably or likely not written by Paul. Romans is one of the books undisputedly written by Paul.
Ehrman argues that “No book of the New Testament has proven to be more influential in the history of Christian thought than Paul’s letter to the Romans.” From Paul himself to St. Augustine all the way through the Protestant Reformation up to today, this letter to Christians in Rome has come to be understood as probably the clearest articulation of Paul’s particular understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. Of all the letters that are indisputably his, this was probably one of the last to be written. Paul hadn’t started the church in Rome. In fact, according to Ehrman, they didn’t seem to know him at all. Or, if they had heard of him, what they heard made them suspicious.
If Paul wanted their support as he began a mission to Spain, he needed to properly introduce himself. He needed to clarify his theology. And, he wanted to offer them teaching and encouragement to help them grow in their faith. In reading Romans, we get a sense of what were key issues in the church of this era: the relationship between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile followers of Jesus, the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ identity as the fulfillment of God’s promises set forth in the law, and a discussion of what it means to live a life shaped by their Christian faith that often put them at odds with the culture around them.
Did anyone here learn how to write letters in school? What are some things you learned had to go in those letters? Paul learned that you had to put some things in letters, too. If you read any of the books that are letters from Paul, you’ll notice that the beginning has a very similar pattern. There’s the sender’s name and the recipients, in this case, “all God’s beloved in Rome.” Notice that Paul doesn’t just say his name. He offers a short description of his calling, and, also, his understanding of who Jesus is and what the Gospel is.
Have you ever heard of an elevator pitch? It’s a short description of a project idea that you might give someone if you only had a short elevator ride to convince them to support you. If you weren’t able to read any of the rest of Romans, Paul’s introduction here is his elevator pitch. He is an apostle, which here is not used to indicate the first 12 of Jesus’ followers, but instead to indicate a special role, similar to that of a prophet in the Hebrew Bible.
We should take care to note that Paul isn’t bragging here when calling himself an apostle. He doesn’t linger on descriptions of his particular holiness or giftedness that made him worthy of such a calling. Instead, he quickly shifts to the work of God in the world. As Jennifer Vija Pietz notes in her commentary on this text, Paul immediately emphasizes how God is at work, not just in calling him, but in laying the foundation through the covenant, for Jesus’ eventual ministry, and for the salvation of all. And, she says, “It is this life-giving gift of God’s Son to a world often turned against God that constitutes the grace that transformed Paul and his co-workers into apostles—ones sent by God to bring this gift to others.” And, according to Pietz, Paul is clearly saying, “This life I have is not my own. It’s God’s. Here’s what I’m called to do with it. Are you called to do this with me?”
If this was a regular letter, Paul might not have needed to say all that. He might have just said, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ.... To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s how these letters usually go. But, remember, this isn’t just a letter to his friends helping them through a thorny church issue like most of his other letters are. He has realized what the next part of his mission for the Gospel is and he knows he will not be able to do it alone. In fact, he’s never done faith alone. He’s long known that the Gospel is done alongside others. So, he starts this letter right from the beginning with a statement of his great faith and an acknowledgement that God can and will call others to do the Gospel as well.
In fact, he seems to know that there is great potential among the faithful in Rome. He’s already heard about them. He thanks God for them. “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” And, that’s where our reading stops, but, obviously not where Paul stops. For this week though, I hope you’ll consider how you might describe your faith if you only had a few moments to do so. What’s your elevator pitch for the Gospel? If you were gonna invite someone to be a part of the mission you’re called to, what would you say? And, if you were sent a letter, or a text message, or a dm from a potential co-worker in Christ, how would you discern if their mission is one to which you are also called? Because there is some powerful work we can do together, when called and equipped by God. May we remain open to all the possibilities that God has already been creating. And, when our letter comes, may we be willing to follow the call.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Jennifer Vija Pietz: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent/commentary-on-romans-11-7-6
Bart Ehrman's chapter on Paul in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Neil Elliot's notes on Romans in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Scripture Matthew 5:43-48 Love for Enemies
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Ok, Jesus, but what if I really don’t want to love my enemies?” That’s what I imagine at least some of the folks who were listening to the Sermon on the Mount thought when they heard this particular bit of teaching. My enemies are my enemies for a reason. They are not very nice. I really only want to love people who are not my enemies. Be reasonable, Jesus.
This whole “love your enemies” thing doesn’t come from out of the blue. Today’s reading is still in that part of the Sermon where Jesus is expounding on how a person might actually live a life that follows the Ten Commandments and other important Jewish religious law. Last week, we learned about addressing destructive anger so that it doesn’t rise to level of doing physical harm to another. That’s how he instructs his disciples and the crowds to follow the “do not murder” commandment: deal with the anger first, so you don’t get to the murder.
Between last week’s reading and today’s, he also addresses issues in marriages, like adultery and divorce, and the breaking of oaths, other issues covered by the Commandments. And then he gets to other important teachings that we would find in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. These are teachings about how to respond to violence that is directed at you. Today’s reading is connected to that. First, he talks about dealing with violence, and then he talks about how to deal with the people who enact the violence.
The scholars I read this week took great pains to remind readers that the people gathered to listen to Jesus were living under a kind of systemic threat that comes with being a nation conquered by Rome. While there was always the risk of individual conflicts leading into interpersonal violence, the people Jesus was preaching to were also at risk of official violence sanctioned by Rome. In her commentary on this text, Carla Works reminds us that the folks in the crowd listening were largely living at a subsistence level- just barely having what they need- and their everyday interactions with agents of Rome, particularly soldiers and tax collectors, were rife with the possibility for violence. It is a deeply pastoral impulse to talk with people who live under the threat of violence about how to deal with that violence in a faithful way.
I’ve preached before on the work of Walter Wink, who offers up an interpretation of Jesus’ teaching about retaliating against violence that I find very useful (go find my sermon from February 19th, 2017 if you want a more full exploration of Matthew 5: 38-42). I won’t go through all of what he said, but the short version is that turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and giving someone more than they are suing for are all ways to disrupt how someone intends to use power. The three types of harm mentioned- slapping a cheek, suing a poor person to take the last clothes they have left, and forcing a civilian to carry a soldier’s stuff- are all examples of using power to humiliate someone. Disrupting their tactics can surprise them and make them look shameful for degrading someone who has less power.
Now, I’m not sure that this always works. Plenty of people in power have no shame and relish humiliating others. At the same time, I remember actions like the 1990 Capitol Crawl protest and know that disruptions can work. In that protest, more than a thousand people marched from the White House to the US Capitol to demand that Congress pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. Once they got to the Capitol, 60 of the protestors who used some kind of mobility aid, from crutches to wheelchairs, set their aids aside and crawled up the steps. It was a powerful demonstration of how inaccessible supposedly public buildings are. Seeing all the disabled activists, including a six-year-old child who wanted to participate, shamed the people in power into voting for the Americans with Disabilities Act. That act has been, and continues to need to be updated, but, even as imperfect as it is, it makes people’s lives more livable and our country more just. Shaming the Devil works, at least sometimes.
According to Jesus, then, after you’ve disrupted the hatefulness directed at you, you need to go one step farther, which, is too bad, because I really like the “shaming the oppressors” part. That feels just to me. Jesus said we can’t stop there, though. We can’t just disrupt our enemies. We also need to love them. Jesus said, “even those traitorous tax collectors can love the people who love them. That’s not very hard.” If you are only kind to the people who think and act just like you, Jesus says, “what more are you doing than others?”
This is one of the places where it is good to be reminded that, as Carl Works says, “God’s kingdom is bigger than Roman rule.” We enact the kindom of God when we live out our faith in this world. And, Jesus says, living out this faith means acting differently than the ones who hate us. It even means that we should pray for them. It even means that we should love them. We practice offering the kind of perfect love God offers. Even when we think that kind of perfection is overrated.
I will freely admit that I don’t always know how to love my enemies. Some neo-Nazis rallied at the state capitol here in Maine yesterday and I feel very little love towards them. On the other hand, I saw some love in action recently from someone who isn’t a Christian, that might serve as an example to me when I struggle to figure out how to love so radically as a Christian. Poet, speaker, author, and comedian Alok Vaid-Menon is trans and gender-non-conforming. They dress in ways that many of us would think of as feminine, use they/them pronouns, and often have a short beard. This mix of clothes, pronouns, and body hair can be really challenging for people who have narrow ideas about what kinds of clothes people with certain kinds of bodies can wear. Given that their work is so often public, people make rude and hurtful comments to them in very public places. Their responses offer a great lesson in loving your enemies.
Recently they shared a comment someone left on one of their pictures. The commenter said, “be yourself, no problem with that, really; but I find this disgusting, sorry.” The thing the person found disgusting was Vaid-Menon existence as a person with beard wearing bright, feminine dresses and heels. Rather than ignoring that person, Vaid-Menon responded. It’s a long response that I’ll share a link to in when I share the whole sermon, but here’s part of it:
“I am a human being: born with a heart, two lungs, and no shame. I’m sorry right back at you. Sorry that you have such a narrow worldview. I can see it’s hurting you. It must be exhausting to feel as if your worth comes from winnowing yourself down to other people’s opinions of who you should be. Shame is interrupted joy. And I believe you are worth joy.”
I am grateful for this example from someone with whom I don’t share a faith who nevertheless has shown me a way to love someone who is unkind to them and do so with great integrity. It is no small sacrifice to expend this energy on someone who might rightly be called an enemy. And, yet, Vaid-Menon has the spiritual strength to find the right moment to do so. My prayer this week is that we can find a way to pray for the ones who cause harm, whether it’s us or our enemies. Maybe our first prayer for them is that they will have a change of heart. That prayer is a good enough place to start. It’s not perfect. But it gets us one step closer to the love and justice Jesus’ hopes for us.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-538-48-2
Carla Works: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-538-48-3
An article about the Capitol Crawl: https://www.history.com/news/americans-with-disabilities-act-1990-capitol-crawl
Alok Vaid-Menon's post where they respond to a hateful comment: https://www.instagram.com/p/Ct9Oc0uu7x_/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==
Walter Wink, Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galillee Doubleday, 1998)
Matthew 5:21-26 Concerning Anger
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Today’s reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount. The first part is the Beatitudes... that list of “Blessed are(s)…" where the meek, the mourners, and the peacemakers are lifted up and called blessed. After that, there is a section about how a disciple is to act in the world. “You are the salt of the earth... You are the light of the world.” Then, there’s a section on how Jesus has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, so the religious commandments were still useful and necessary ways to orient your life towards God. Today’s reading is in that part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is talking about the Law.
Beginning with verse 21 and continuing well past what we heard today, clear to the end of chapter 5, Jesus offers up some specific teaching on what it means to follow his interpretation of Jewish religious laws and practice. In his notes on the text, Andrew Overman notes that Jesus singles out the Ten Commandments, as well as some other religious laws from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in his teaching. He explains the law and how one should adapt their behavior in order to follow that religious law. In his commentary on this text, Eric Barreto says that Jesus is helping his followers cultivate a relationship with God through “a faithful recalling of and reinvestment in ancient, trustworthy tradition.” Remember, he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.
Interestingly, he doesn’t begin this reinvestment by simplifying the manner by which one can follow any given commandment. He’s not watering down their shared religious traditions. Barreto notes that he’s actually intensifying them... adding additional layers of practice on top of the behaviors usually accepted as evidence that a person is trying to follow a commandment. Jesus isn’t asking for a bare minimum of adherence for the law. He is asking for a rigorous, life-changing commitment. Jesus believes that a relationship with God is transformative. And, also, that each of our relationships with God will shape how we interact with other people. Our faith shouldn’t isolate us but connect us with other people and shape how we interact with other people. As Karoline Lewis notes in her commentary on this text, “ [w]ho you choose to be in the world is not only a revelation of yourself, but also a manifestation of those with whom you are in relationship or claim connection.” How you are in this world says something about the God you believe in and the church you are a part of.
So, how are we to be in this world? Jesus says that we are to be invested enough in our relationship with God that we actively tend to the relationships with other people that shape our daily lives. In a couple different sermons I’ve preached, I’ve talked about how Jesus lumps the Ten Commandments into two sections: one is about loving God and the other is about loving other people. For Jesus, then, when engaging with the commandments, he calls on his followers to really get to the heart of each commandment. There we will find guidance on how to love God through loving our neighbors.
I won’t try to go through all of Jesus’ interpretations of the Ten Commandments today, mostly because our reading for the day just covers one. But, it’s a big one! He starts this discourse with what can seem like a no-brainer: don’t murder people. Perhaps I’m being naïve here, but I think it is remarkably easy nearly all the time to not murder someone. Jesus says that this commandment isn’t just about the act of killing someone. It is about dealing with the anger that can, if unchecked, drive you to harm another person. While it might be pretty easy not to murder someone, it is often very hard not to be angry. And, as Eric Barreto notes in his commentary, some kinds of anger are death-dealing and destructive. Jesus sees destructive anger as the issue to be addressed if one does not want to be tempted to harm another. And, this is what he believes his followers must first address.
It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t put the onus of reconciliation only on the person who has been angered. Instead, it is the responsibility of the one who has angered someone else to go to that person and attempt to be reconciled. We must be aware of the effect that we have on other people. That is what it means to be a disciple. We are a people who seek to repair what we have broken. This section of the Sermon on the Mount is often called the Antitheses. That is a reference to the way Jesus says “you have heard that...., but I say to you....” Barreto invites us to read this portion of the sermon as “you have heard that to follow God, you must not kill, but I say to you, to follow God, you must seek repaired relationship through reconciliation.”
The kinds of wrongs Jesus is talking about here are the kind that might be settled in court. That’s why there is this talk of “favorable terms.” Sometimes reconciliation is hard, and a third party is necessary to help people treat each other fairly. Jesus encourages his followers to try to not let the disagreement go that far if possible. If you have wronged someone, make yourself accountable to them, and work to make amends. This is a significant demand for humility from Jesus. It is not often easy to admit when you have wronged someone else. But, it is necessary if we are to be in relationships with each other that reflects God’s love in the world.
In his commentary on this text, Charles Campbell describes Jesus as “build[ing] up a distinctive community grounded not simply in external actions but in relationships that value and seek the good of others.” These kinds of relationships don’t usually just happen out of nowhere. They must be cultivated over time and with great care. Jesus tells us that the work is worth it. Because, through this work, we grow closer to God. May we be guided by the Holy Spirit as we tend our relationships, making amends, and offering care. For this, as the scholar Carl Works notes in her commentary, is how God’s Kindom will come.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
J. Andrew Overman's notes on Matthew in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)n The New Oxford Annotated Bible
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-521-37-4
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-521-37-2
Charles L. Campbell, "Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, and Dale P. Andrews, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.